Creativity: What is It?

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6×6″ oil on wood panel.

Ancient Greeks and Romans believed creativity implied freedom of action. Poets were thought to be creative, because they brought to life new worlds. Artists were not considered creative, because they copied what they saw—imitated, in other words—and didn’t create anything new. So it remained, with little real change, until roughly the 19th Century. Artists and writers could be craftspeople. Poets were the creators or art.

Perhaps the desire to upend this notion about who could be creative is what motivated and elevated some 20th Century artists to fame. Artists like Picasso, who painted mostly from his imagination, and Marcel Duchamp, who was associated with Cubism and the development of conceptual art (a theory the values concept more than the beauty of works of art) threw away the rules. They insisted on having the freedom to create by taking whatever actions they desired. They insisted on the freedom to create and were not be bound by rules.

It’s my opinion, which is shared by many, that abandoning aesthetics (subjective, emotional values that vary by culture) is risky—especially if the goal is to sell artwork. We rely on others to like our work and have positive emotional responses to it.

I took liberties with the landscape painting (above), emphasizing elements to my liking—implied freedom of action. Still, I copied what I saw, too. I do think of it as creative.

Thoughts? Do you consider yourself creative? Why, why not?

 

It’s a New Year

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“Hope” 8×6″ oil on linen panel.

Updated January 10, 2018. Last year began well, but health problems surfaced in April that caused me to put painting and many other things on the back burner for the rest of the year. I’m just now starting to engage in many things I had to set aside during those months.

The painting “Hope” (above) was part of a personal challenge I started on January 1, 2017. I planned to finish 30 small plein air (painting on location) paintings in 30 days. The temperature that day was 35 degrees and it was sunny. But the highs in the near-future forecast were closer to 5 degrees. Burr! I started anyway, because I had set a goal and I felt hopeful about the future. I did adjust my plan a bit (because of cold weather) and worked on some paintings in my studio.

I might not have finished the challenge without a strategy that included asking my friend Karen, who is a personal coach, to help me be accountable. I arranged to send her a photo of each day’s painting, and I agreed that unless I broke a leg (or something equally awful happened), I would schedule a coaching session to talk about “why I was slacking off” if I missed more than two days in a row. Having that accountability helped me finish the challenge.

Think about what you want to accomplish this year. Then create a plan that includes a strategy for how you will be accountable, because these two things will help you reach you goals.

Paintings I completed for the January 2017 challenge can be seen here.

 

A Painting is the Sum of a Lot of Decisions

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Unfinished pochade study, #14 in series of 50, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

The artwork an artist produces is the result of long series of decisions. Choosing colors or brushes or the type of surface to paint on are among the decisions we make, but those decisions only come after many others have been made. For example, it was chilly and windy last week, and I do most of my work plein air — on location. I didn’t want to stand in the wind so I had to think about locations that afforded some shelter and a view of something to paint. I decided to go to a nature preserve near my home, because I knew I could probably find some protection from the wind. I ended up standing in front of a big old barn, which kept the wind off me.

When we make a decision, often what happens is that decision informs other decisions. Sometimes, we end up going in a direction that may, or may not, serve us well. When we look up at what’s ahead if we keep going in the direction we’re going, it may be decision time again. This is what happened to me recently.

I started painting again last year after being away from it for more than thirty years. I’d forgotten much of what I’d once known about painting. Even using a paint brush to move the paint around on the surface the way I wanted was a struggle. When I started painting again, I decided to do plein air painting, because I love landscapes and being outdoors. It’s been a good fit for me. But what I didn’t know about plein air work is that its REALLY different from studio work. Studio work can take months or even years to finish. Plein air work is done in mere hours. Studio work, depending on the artist and style, is often refined. I think of it as deliberate. Plein air on the other hand often looks “rough,” like it’s  practice for bigger and better things, which sometimes it is. Some plein air artists will reproduce their small studies to create larger works of art in their studios. Plein air painting is also deliberate, but in a different way.

After I’d been painting plein air for awhile, I decided I needed lessons so I could learn how to paint better and faster in the field. I’m fortunate to live in an area where some REALLY GOOD plein air artists also live and teach. I’ve spent a lot of time and money learning how to paint in the past year. After a recent 3-day workshop, I was feeling kinda low about my work and the direction I seemed to be going in, which was also, by the way, the direction that I felt I had a growing commitment to continuing along. But a little voice in my head said, “You painted better a year ago than you do today.” I thought about that for awhile and finally rationalized that things often get harder before they get easier. I told myself I was learning and that everything would work itself out if I just kept doing the work.

What I was becoming aware of ever so slowly is what the differences between plein air and studio work really mean for me as an artist. One of my teachers is an excellent draftsman. He does detailed, delicate, beautiful drawings with paint and then proceeds to paint the picture. Joe’s style and technique are beautiful and his paintings sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. Mary, who taught the 3-day workshop, was trained in a classical style and she is skilled enough to paint highly realistic, incredible work. But the work she does today is more “expressive.” It’s still deliberate (realistic and accurate), which conveys her training, but her paintings have an energy.  She calls it “soul.” Her works also sell in the $15,000 range. I had put myself at a crossroad, and I’ve been deciding what to do now; which direction I should go.

We tell ourselves all kinds of things. We are easily mesmerized by beauty. Truth be told — I can’t be like either of these highly successful artists. I can’t follow Joe. Nor can I follow Mary. I can and have learned from them, but I believe that the whisper I heard (maybe from my creative muse) was telling me to remember who I am and to be that person when I stand in front of my easel.

The small 6 x 8-inch pochade studies I’ve been working on have been enormously helpful. I will do 50, and finished #18 yesterday. I titled it “Autumn Joy,” which is also the name of the sedum that grows in my backyard and which is the subject of the painting.

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“Autumn Joy” #18 in series of 50 pochade studies, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

 

Trees and Sky

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When the goal is to get better, deliberate practice is the strategy to use. Deliberate practice works because it makes the difficult familiar and, therefore, easier to do. Deliberate practice involves repetition and having a coach or mentor who can help guide the practice and offer constructive critiques.

What I learned about painting a tree and sky holes

I thought it might be easier to paint the sky behind the tree (known as sky holes) first and then paint the tree over the sky. Painting sky holes isn’t hard to do, but I reasoned—wrongly—that painting them first would save me time. A good teacher or mentor could have helped me understand why my experiment failed, but studying how other painters work and what they have to say about things like sky holes is a good alternative.

I’m reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson. In the chapter on Light, Carlson explains that light loses brilliance when it’s filtered through a dark mass (thick leaves). But that isn’t the “whole” story. Carlson goes on to explain that the sky color varies in value according to the size and consequent amount of light that’s admitted through them. The lightest holes are the biggest holes. The small holes are darker. I’ll apply Carlson’s suggestions on my my next painting.

What do you want to do better? How can you accomplish your goal?

Do It Daily, Do It Deliberately and Improve Dramatically

To do better at anything, from painting to shooting hoops, there is no substitute for daily, deliberate practice. K. Andres Ericsson and his team have lead the research on deliberate practice, and they tell us being deliberate about practice can shorten the time—thought to be about ten years under normal conditions—to expertise. It requires four things:

  1. Motivation.
  2. Tasks designed to take advantage of existing knowledge.
  3. Immediate feedback.
  4. Repeated performance of the same or similar thing.

If you desire to get better, even much better, at what you do, then read on. If your want to improve and have fun, read on, because practice can also be fun.

It’s best to practice under the guidance of a teacher or mentor, who knows how to structure the necessary tasks and provide immediate feedback on work. Without that immediate feedback, it’s almost impossible to learn efficiently (reduce time to expertise), and improvement will be minimal. I was fortunate to find Joe Paquet, an excellent and accomplished landscape painter, to teach me how to be a better painter. Naively, I thought I could learn what I needed to know in 12 weeks. What I learned in his first 12-week studio class is that I have a lot to learn.

What I want to learn to do skillfully is plein air painting. Plein air is a French term that means painting what you actually see “outside” in open air. It has a strong connection to Impressionist work; after all, the Impressionist painters taught us how to see and depict atmosphere in our paintings. Painting outdoors has its own unique set of challenges: special equipment (compact and lightweight) that can be carried a distance, terrain, bugs, onlookers, weather, and animals (including dogs that belong to people who let them off leash, after which, they will for sure run under your easel or tripod). I don’t mind onlookers, but dogs that are too curious irritate me. And last week, my half-finished painting and paint palette ended up face down in the gravel, my turpentine spilled, and brushes splayed on the road, when I turned away for or 10 seconds and a gust of wind tipped everything over. Nothing broke, and I can finish the painting, so the consequences are minimal.

In spite of the challenges, I love plein air painting, which I’ve been doing about a year.

Boat Ramp on MississippiRock in a Hard Place (2)

I painted the one on the left (oils on 6×6-inch wood panel) last summer. I painting the one on the right (oils on 6×8-inch on linen-covered hardboard panel)  this spring, when I was about halfway through the 12-week class.

What do you want to learn to do better? What’s stopping you? Feel free to leave a comment.

Note: this is the first post in a new category: Plein Air. I plan to post about tools, tips, frustrations, and the fun of plein air painting, when inspired to do so.

 

 

 

What Motivates Us to Make Art?

Advice that’s frequently dispensed to people in creative fields goes something like this. “If you want to be successful, then develop a unique, marketable style. Know what buyers want. Then, go forth and create paintings people will like and buy.”

This may actually be poor advice.

People like paintings of dogs and cats and of kids playing near or in water. This is a good market niche. That doesn’t mean we should start churning out paintings of dogs or cats or kids at the beach in the hope of reaching the market. In fact, artists risk being cliché if they do. I know a woman who paints delightful cows and pigs and, occasionally, sheep. Her paintings sell well, because she has developed technical skills and because she has also developed her talent for seeing and capturing each animal’s special essence. She loves her farm-yard animals and that love shows in her work.

The point I want to make is not that painting any of these “marketable” subjects is wrong. It’s not. But painting simply because there’s a market for certain subjects is poor advice that often results in cliché paintings.

There is a lot of good advice for artists (and writers), too.

Connecting with other artists by studying their works (maybe even copying their style for a while) for the sake of arriving at one’s personal truth is good advice. Creativity coach Eric Maisel says that this kind of connecting “extends tradition” and is a good way to arrive at a personal style.

I love to paint landscapes with oils, frequently in plein air, as do thousands of other painters. I’m not sure my “style” will ever appear. I’m also not sure that it won’t.